Space Is Officially A 'Weapons-Free Zone,' So Why Do Astronauts Carry Guns?

If movies are to be believed, outer space is a war zone where military forces respond to alien threats with a barrage of hot, American lead. The reality is that weapons are incredibly rare in space. That's good, because nothing spells apocalypse quicker than a space station armed with weapons of mass destruction.

While the international community has worked hard to keep space as weapons-free as possible that doesn't mean that there isn't a single weapon floating around up there in the darkness. An international treaty bans nations from positioning large-scale weapons in space but there is no such law preventing astronauts from carrying small arms into orbit. In fact, Russian astronauts are known to pack some serious heat. But weaponizing space remains controversial, which is why most astronauts don't like talking about the guns kept on the International Space Station (ISS).

Of course, not every country feels the same way about space warfare. It was recently released that a Russian space cannon was hidden in orbit for years before being decommissioned. So do astronauts really need to carry guns into space, or are the few guns in space an outdated relic from the competitive history of space travel

  • A Gun Probably Lies On The International Space Station Right Now

    First and foremost, astronauts are scientists, and the ISS is essentially a research lab designed to be a symbol of world peace and international cooperation. But for all of the good feelings, there is usually a gun on board the station. The weapon belongs to the Russians and has been issue for Russian cosmonauts since the 1960s.

    Russian astronauts bring it with them whenever they are sent into orbit, and it is usually stored in the Soyuz capsule they ride in on. Since there is usually a Russian presence on the ISS at any given time, that means that the weapon is a semipermanent fixture of the station. 

  • The TP-82 Was A Unique Weapon Carried By Russian Cosmonauts

    The TP-82 Was A Unique Weapon Carried By Russian Cosmonauts
    Photo: One half 3544 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Until 2007, the TP-82 served as the standard weapon carried on all Russian space missions. The gun was specifically created for the Russian space program and is the Swiss army knife of firearms. The TP-82 includes three different barrels designed to fire different types of projectiles. One is capable of firing shotgun rounds, the second is meant for rifle slugs, and the third is a specially crafted chamber that can launch rescue flares. If that doesn't get the job done, the detachable stock that can be unsheathed and used as a survival machete.

    Today, the TP-82 is a relic, as the original manufacturer no longer produces ammunition compatible with this unique weapon and all stores have since passed their expiration date.

  • The Gun Is Designed To Protect Astronauts From Earth, Not Space

    The Gun Is Designed To Protect Astronauts From Earth, Not Space
    Photo: Skeeze / Pixabay / CC BY 1.0

    Space sounds terrifying, but at least it's not home to giant bears and killer wolves. The same can't be said about the Siberian wilderness where Russian astronauts often touch down on their return from orbit. After one particularly bad experience in 1965 left a cosmonaut stranded in the wild for days without anything to fend off the local wildlife, the Soviet government began including a gun in all emergency survival kits sent to space. While the gun has never been fired by a cosmonaut in self defense, it is still included in the kit as a necessary survival tool. 

  • American Astronauts Were Allowed To Train With The TP-82

    American astronauts routinely fly on Russian spacecraft, and are therefore required to train with Russian cosmonauts and the equipment they use. This included the TP-82 and astronauts have publicly spoken about their experience firing one. 

    "I found it to be well-balanced, highly accurate, and convenient to use," said American astronaut Dave Wolf. Astronaut Jim Voss candidly recounted a story to NBC News about shooting bottles while stationed on a Russian training vessel in the Black Sea. "We threw the bottles as far as possible, probably 20 or 30 meters, then shot them. It was trivial to hit the bottles with the shotgun shells, and relatively easy to hit them with the rifle bullets on the first shot," said Voss. 

  • A Standard Semi-Automatic Pistol Replaced The TP-82

    A Standard Semi-Automatic Pistol Replaced The TP-82
    Photo: Andrey Mironov / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    While the Russian TP-82 was a cleverly engineered piece of hardware, it went out of commission in 2007. That doesn't mean that the Russians have stopped carrying guns into space. Today, instead of a specialized space gun, Russian cosmonauts now carry standard issue military pistols into orbit.  The Makarov semi-automatic pistol that replaced the TP-82 is much less elegant than it's predecessor. The pistol cannot fire rifle or shotgun rounds, doesn't deploy flairs and a separate machete has replaced the bladed-stock of the TP-82.

    Unfortunately, the smaller caliber rounds make it extremely inefficient at fending off wolves in the Siberian wilderness, much less a full grown bear, which is the explanation Russia gives for carrying it in the first place. This gun is meant to be used on humans, which raises a question; why is it being brought to the ISS?

  • Everyone On Board The ISS Has Access To The Gun, Regardless Of Their Nationality

    In the true spirit of international cooperation, the Russians made it clear the gun can be used by anyone in the ISS. The gun's case remains unlocked and anyone with access to the Soyuz capsule could grab it.

    While the idea seemingly promotes trust among the crew, there is a risk to keeping an insecure weapon on board of a space craft. As more people from around the world fly to the ISS, the odds increase that a mentally unstable person could find themselves in possession of the deadliest weapon in space. Discharging the weapon inside the ISS could be catastrophic, as it could very likely breach the hull, potentially killing everyone onboard.